ECP’s Guide to Patient Testimonials That Won’t Get You In Trouble

Patient testimonials are an excellent marketing tool—patients tend to trust other patients. But you must make sure that any marketing you do that features testimonials comply with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines. The FTC aims to prevent “unfair methods of competition in or affection commerce, and (surprise!) it applies to healthcare providers.

According to the FTC, patient testimonials are considered endorsements. An endorsement is “an advertising message…that consumers are likely to believe reflects the opinions, beliefs, findings, or experiences of a party other than the sponsoring advertiser. In this case, the ‘party’ is the patient who’s giving a testimonial and the ‘sponsoring advertiser’ is you. Read on for some basic guidelines.

Quick Tips for FTC-Approved Patient Testimonials

  • Most importantly, the testimonial must be real! You can’t have a staff member say something nice and pretend that a patient said it. Whoever is giving the testimonial must have actually experienced the product or service.
  • The testimonial must be “truthful and not misleading.” It must reflect the honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experience of the patient and should be reflective of a typical patient experience.
  • If the testimonial is not reflective of the typical experience of most patients, you must “clearly and conspicuously disclose the generally expected experience of similar patients.” You may no longer simply use the disclaimer “results were not typical.”
  • Avoid claims of being a specialist if you are not certified in a specialty, and avoid claims of being “the best,” which sounds nice but requires proof that the patient wouldn’t have. And don’t let patients mention the name of any drug or device that their treatment involves.

And don’t forget: testimonials aren’t ‘patients only.’ An “increase in social media use has brought about more opportunity for employees to endorse their employer in one way or the other,” says attorney Caroline Patterson, who spoke to ophthalmologists about the FTC at last year’s AAO annual meeting. “Although an endorsement is a positive thing, employers must be aware of what their employees post online,” she says. “Take proactive steps to provide adequate guidelines to them or [you] may be subject to liability based upon those actions,” she continues.

What does that liability entail? The FTC’s guidelines aren’t federal regulations, so thet don’t involve any civil penalties. But you could be a target for investigation of false or deceptive advertising practices. That could lead to attorney’s fees court costs and compensation for those affected by false advertising.

Eyes Open

Just because you don’t participate in government programs like Medicare and Medicaid doesn’t mean you can treat your marketing like a free-for-all. States typically have their own fraud and abuse laws, as well as consumer protection and patient solicitation laws. For example, in some states you must disclose if an image in a photo is a stock photo and not a real patient. You are still accountable to your state and professional licensing board, even if you only work with private payers.

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